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The map based on planner John Nolen's 1920s design.

Venice has a lot to live up to.  It is, after all, named after the most beautiful city in the world. And even its California cousin is deservedly famous for its beach and canals. How can little Venice, Fla., hope to compete?

Our Venice trades on its charm. Its splendid physical location is a big plus—a white-sand tropical beach and palm trees everywhere you look. But it is the houses themselves, the places the residents call home, that provide the intangible ingredient. Particularly on the Island of Venice—the town’s birthplace, and its heart and soul—they radiate an atmosphere of peace, nostalgia, prosperous comfort and perfect scale, not to mention some very well cared-for lawns.

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Unlike most cities, Venice was designed to be residential. Yes, there is industry of some sort around the edges, but the vibe of the town is certainly not urban. Missing is the frenetic atmosphere of, say, the city of Sarasota, with construction cranes on every block and businesses from up North being shamelessly begged to “come and grow” along with the town. Venice has a different attitude. It’s run for the benefit of its residents.

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The town was designed by a famous city planner named John Nolen back in the 1920s. When you look at a map, you can see its beauty, with an intricate grid of streets and avenues crossing and intersecting, along with some strong diagonal lines and big U-shaped curves. But when you’re driving or walking around it’s hard to see how all this fits together and things can get confusing.  Do what I do: Wander and let serendipity work its magic.

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A good place to start: the big old Spanish homes on Venice Avenue, the wide street with the median of trees that serves as a grand approach to the beach. There is a group of three—numbers 605, 613, and 625—that serve as Venice’s signature, so well known they could sit comfortably on the city’s official seal. My favorite is 625, with its wonderful Hollywood Spanish frieze around the living room window.

Also check out 613. It’s a large home, over 5,000 square feet, set on a walled lot that’s over half an acre. It’s a dramatic example of Spanish Revival architecture circa 1925. In 2014 it sold for just over a million, and judging from the pictures online, the interior is just as nice as the exterior. It has one of those great period-perfect living rooms, right out of a silent movie, two stories in height, vaulted and beamed, with a fireplace at one end.

For more examples of Spanish Revival architecture, head a few blocks south to the Venezia Park District. Here the homes are a little smaller but even more charming. The big attraction is the 30 or so houses that were built when the city was first laid out. They were to set the tone for the city to come, and they certainly have succeeded.

 

The first thing you notice is the way their facades are so perfectly put together. They have all sorts of windows, arches, grills, turned-wood balconies, rooflines and chimneys, all perfectly blended in a way that modern builders just can’t seem to duplicate. The result as you drive by is one architectural delight after another. (By the way, you can pick up a map that shows where the homes are from the Venice Museum and Archives, housed in an historic building itself at 351 Nassau St. S.)

The neighborhood is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Even more important, though, is the enormous influence these homes have had on the way Florida looks today. These are the grandparents of the Spanish Mediterranean style that so completely dominated building in the state during the boom from 1990 to the crash in 2008. If only the grandkids were as good-looking, as perfectly proportioned, as elegantly refined as the grandparents.

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My personal favorite is one of the smallest: 508 Venezia. It’s a one-story cottage-style home, with a short wall set with tile inserts that encloses a little courtyard. It’s the simplest home imaginable, but with subtle details that add up to something special. The chimney, for instance, serves no fireplace—it’s just there to enhance the façade. And check out the little window set into the wooden front door. It’s unexpectedly set off to one side. That’s when you realize how sophisticated these homes are.

For sophisticated architecture from another era, check out the midcentury modern homes several blocks west of Venezia Park. The Victor Lundy design at 615 Alhambra Road is the most famous. It’s known as the Herron House, named after its original owner, the developer of Warm Mineral Springs.

When it was built back in 1957 it was featured in both Life and Time magazines. It’s like no other home in Venice—or maybe anywhere. It’s all curves—the façade, the roofline. Even the interior spaces are swooping and graceful, including a curved wall of glazed brick in the living room. It was almost torn down in 2008, but luckily a European couple fell in love with it and restored it to its original grandeur.

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Nearby at 616 Valencia is another midcentury masterpiece by Ralph Twitchell. It’s featured in the book Sarasota Modern by Andrew Weaving and dates back to 1953. Built of Ocala block, a tan-colored concrete and sand block indigenous to Central Florida, it has a strict, angular geometry much different from the Herron house. As you drive around you’ll notice other midcentury homes also constructed with Ocala block. They vary in quality and design, but they’re becoming highly desirable, with their strong 1950s retro vibe coming back into fashion.

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But for all the architecturally significant homes on the Island of Venice, the great majority are good old Florida ranch homes dating from the immediate postwar era up until the present day. You’ll see how they expanded from the simple designs of the 1950s and ’60s, which were often meant for retirement living, through the 1970s, when they grew a little bigger and featured avocado-colored appliances and dark wood paneling. The arrival of the 1980s brought back the Spanish look, but by now it was watered down and not quite as elegant as back in the 1920s.

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Today we’ve moved on to something called “Coastal,” and many of the new homes being built are in this style. The newcomers suggest old-fashioned beach cottages brought up to date for modern living—lots of crisp white and Bermuda-like colors, with plenty of windows and architectural details like railings, shutters and custom molding, both interior and exterior. A great example of this style can be found at 628 Valencia Road.

If you notice a small plane buzzing off in the distance, chances are it’s about to land at Venice Airport, located at the southern end of the Island. These days it seems crazy to call an airport “picturesque,” but Venice’s really is. It started out as an Army Air Force base during World War II and never really grew much. Now it’s surrounded by a golf course, a dog park, the old circus grounds and several of the best—and least crowded—beaches in Florida.

For me that little airport epitomizes what makes Venice so special. It didn’t turn into a city of McMansions during the boom. The city’s heritage has been largely preserved, along with its intimate and highly livable scale. John Nolen’s 1920s plan has stood the test of time.

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And while the homes may not be the largest or the most glamorous in Florida, they provide something hard to find these days—an old-fashioned, unpretentious charm. In fact, my favorite home on the Island may be the simplest of all. It’s a little cottage located at 412 Riviera St. There’s no architectural distinction to its simple stucco design. But with its careful and imaginative attention to all its little details—the unusual but carefully chosen color scheme, the way it mixes various shades of blue and sets them against a shock of bright bougainvillea—this little home accomplishes what a McMansion can’t: It makes you stop and smile.

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